Low fat milk (left) is cheaper than high fat milk but can resembled powdered milk taste-wise. The milk on the right is "ESL" or "extended shelf life" milk and is supposed to last a long time. Most high fat milk has its fat content prominently displayed on the label, but you have to check nutrition information for the percentages on low fat (the one above is .7%).
As you approach the dairy case at one of our local markets, a little song plays which goes something like "three a day, three a day, ichi-nichi (everyday), san-kai (3 times)". Yes, part of the song is in English and the "three" is pronounced like "sree". This ditty is part of a campaign which extends to other countries which I'm sure is funded by the dairy manufacturers world-wide.
There are some people who are promoting the idea that dairy is very bad for you. Actually, there are a lot of people who say that for various reasons. One of the reasons is that cows are not treated especially well, even those that are milked and not slaughtered. Another is that not everyone responds well to milk products. I think others just want to make sure that any organized producers of anything who encourage you to consume something for health benefits should be taken to task as their motives are surely financial rather than related to the social good.
Without a doubt, there are some people who have issues with dairy products. From multiple sources, I've heard that 90% of Asian people are lactose intolerant, but Japanese people are tremendous fans of yogurt. Most of their cheese is processed and they don't drink milk in the ways that Western folks do as part of a regular diet, but I've rarely encoutered someone who didn't regularly eat or drink yogurt. In fact, yogurt drinks are all over the place in a variety of flavors and configurations.
Since hearing that 90% of Asians are lactose intolerant, I've asked students if they ever feel ill or experience any sort of discomfort after consuming milk products and they all look at me as if I had asked them if they ever spontaneously sprouted wings and flew. The idea that dairy products will make them feel bad just isn't on the radar, so I couldn't fathom what the information I was hearing again and again was based on as no one seemed to be experiencing lactose intolerance. Though I guess a genetic explanation is likely, I'm not sure a gene for lactose intolerance has been discovered and not all Asian people are intolerant.
At any rate, while researching milk, I learned some interesting points about the body and milk consumption which may explain why so many Asians are lactose intolerant yet do not experience discomfort while consuming dairy products. One thing I learned is that, after birth, the enzyme required to digest milk starts to slowly diminish unless you continue to consume milk. Essentially, this means that cultures which embrace milk as a part of their regular diet throughout their lives are far less likely to become lactose intolerant as continual ingestion of milk stops you from becoming so. Considering that Asians often do not drink milk regularly in the same fashion as some Western folks, it makes sense that they would gradually stop producing the enzyme that allows them to digest lactose.
I also learned something which may explain to some extent how my students, who fall within the whopping 90% of lactose intolerant Asian people, are consuming dairy without discomfort and that was that yogurt contains bacterial cultures which help digest lactose so it can be managed better by folks who are lactose intolerant.
One other point about milk in Japan is that it tastes different than milk in the U.S. because it is processed differently. In fact, it took quite awhile for my husband and I to get used to it. It seems thinner and more watery, though milk here tends to come in various high fat percentages (commonly from 1.0-4.4% with non-fat milk being relatively hard to find). I've read that lactose is water soluble and that Japan uses steam injection and infusion methods to process milk. This process heats the milk for a longer time and probably is part of the reason it tastes strange to Americans. I wonder if something in this process destroys or removes some of the lactose in Japanese milk, I must say that this is complete speculation on my part.